The conflict in Colombia has established itself as the longest and one of the most complex armed conflicts in the world. Since colonial times, the country's history has been marked by violence, a racist violence that has led to extreme inequality in the distribution of wealth. This inequality in Colombia persists to this day and is a central point in the numerous violent clashes.
Currently, Colombia ranks the worst in terms of unequal land distribution in Latin America, followed by Peru and Chile. Only 1% of landowners cultivate over 80% of the agricultural land throughout the country, while the remaining 99% share only about one-fifth of the land. The extreme concentration of land in the hands of a few and the associated conflicts over land access and ownership are central factors contributing to the ongoing armed conflict in the country.
Since colonial times, the concentration of vast land areas in the hands of a few has been the norm. These ownership structures have been maintained and established through violence, and the violent displacement of small farmers has become commonplace in Colombia over the past centuries. As a result, the vast majority of the rural population, including historically marginalized indigenous and Black communities, has been dispossessed, leading to the impoverishment of large segments of the population. This cycle of poverty has solidified over generations. Any attempts to change these conditions have been met with violence and brutally suppressed by those in power.
Part of the country is considered relevant only in terms of its natural resources. This has led to a development model based on extractivism and the violent enforcement of policies favoring this model. Social leaders and communities who resisted this development model and defended their territories have become victims of numerous human rights violations.
At the end of 2021, Colombia ranked third among the countries with the most internally displaced persons in the world, after Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are around 8,000,000 internally displaced people in Colombia.
Both state and illegal armed actors bear responsibility of this, but so do large landowners, cattle ranchers and large agricultural business owners who have appropriated millions of hectares of land through threats, forced purchases and massacres.
The reasons for the ongoing conflict lie in the lack of political will to implement measures for fundamental changes that would lead to a fairer distribution and access to resources and basic rights. There is a powerful economic and political elite that resists democratic opening. They combat social and political processes challenging their privileges by any means necessary, both legal and illegal. Left-wing sectors, activists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, as well as students, indigenous peoples, and Afro-Colombians who organize politically to demand their rights to participation, have been systematically persecuted, criminalized, and murdered for decades.
In addition, the drug trade emerged in the 1970s, involving various actors in the conflict. Drug trafficking became part of the war economy, and gradually, a culture of organized crime took hold in the country, introducing brutal practices. While the drug trade is not the root cause of the conflict, it has been a key factor in its escalation and expansion.
The founding of the guerrillas is connected to social, economic and political exclusion and the lack of spaces for political participation. There were numerous guerrillas in Colombia throughout the 20th century. The most well-known among them are the FARC-EP, the ELN, the EPL, and the M-19. They are all left-wing guerrillas, most of whom were founded in the 1960s and 1970s.
The guerrillas shared an ideological commitment to the anti-capitalist struggle and formed the National Guerrilla Coordinating Board Simón Bolívar in the 1980s. The FARC-EP, ELN, EPL, M-19, Quintín Lame Armed Movement, and the Revolutionary Workers' Party (PTR) collaborated for almost a decade.
However, a minority of FARC members subsequently took up arms again and founded the guerrilla group "FARC-EP", the second "Marquetalia" in response to the government's non-implementation of the agreement and the systematic murder of former guerilla fighters. These groups are known as dissidents.
The M-19 was founded in 1970 as a result of a declared presidential election fraud that took place in the same year. It differed from other subversive movements because it was primarily an urban guerrilla group, with many of its members coming from an academic middle-class background. It identified itself as an anti-oligarchic and anti-imperialist movement. After a peace agreement in 1990, they formed the political party Alianza Democrática M-19. Some notable politicians, including the current President of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, were members of the M-19.
The EPL (National People's Liberation Army) was founded in 1966 and had a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology. The majority of its members laid down their arms in 1991 and founded the "Esperanza, Paz y Libertad" party.
Paramilitarism is not just an armed actor. It is a military, political, and societal right-wing extremist project that has been largely driven by the assassination of left-wing politicians and social activists. It has close connections to drug trafficking and drug cartels. Paramilitarism is the most violent actor in the Colombian conflict and is responsible for the majority of human rights violations.
Paramilitary structures emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, as the armed wing of the Conservative Party. Paramilitary groups expanded in the 1980s under the guise of counterinsurgency. They served as private armies of politicians and large landowners, defended the preservation of economic, political and social privileges, sought the expansion of private property and revenues through land grabbing and murder. They enforced territorial control through the eradication of opposing armed groups and a violent form of social control.
The state plays a significant role in the development and perpetuation of the armed conflict in Colombia. Historically, it has systematically employed illegitimate violence to stop democratization processes. It is responsible for numerous human rights violations and has always portrayed them as collateral damage of the "fight against terrorism".
One of the worst systematic human rights violations by the state is the eradication of the left-wing party Union Patriótica (UP) after its founding in 1985. Furthermore, the Colombian state is accountable under the law for the extrajudicial execution of at least 6,402 civilians, which were violently carried out by the army between 2002 and 2008. Additionally, numerous individuals were deceived and captured, murdered, and later presented as guerrilla fighters killed in combat.
Big business owners, landowners, and cattle ranchers have directly participated in and benefited from the Colombian conflict. In particular, social groups that had accumulated land and property have enriched themselves or gained political power through dispossession, economic activities related to the armed conflict, and the drug trade. In the official hearing on the Contribution to the Truth before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in April 2023, former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso confirmed the cooperation of national and multinational companies such as Coca-Cola, Postobón, Bavaria and Ecopetrol with the paramilitaries to carry out the assassination of trade unionists or acquire land. Similar agreements have been reported involving operators of palm oil, banana, sugarcane plantations, and mines.
The involvement of the guerrillas in the drug trade was primarily related to the production process of cocaine. The guerrillas financed themselves by charging fees for guarding illegal crops, taxing laboratories and using illegal runways. The paramilitary groups have had a direct link to drug trafficking since their collaboration with the Medellín Cartel and the Cali Cartel in the 1980s. Drug trafficking serves as a source of funding for both guerrillas and paramilitaries in the armed conflict.
The Colombian conflict can only be understood when placed in a global context. This context of the Cold War and the anti-communist struggle and resistance in various parts of the world not only provided ideological references and economic resources but also exerted significant pressure from the beginning of the conflict, which contributed to its escalation.
The state's claim of communist influence in the uprisings of April 11, 1948 made it possible to give a real dimension to the so-called communist threat in Latin America, demonstrating the need for a continental anti-communist policy. In line with US geopolitical goals, it was believed that the USSR and communism posed a serious threat to Western and Christian civilization. A system of intergovernmental anti-communist alliances was developed, consistent with the Truman Doctrine and officially coordinated through the Pan-American system, the OAS, the Inter-American Treaty on Mutual Assistance (TIAR) and the Alliance for Progress (Alianza para el progreso), launched in 1961. Colombia was the only country in the region, in addition to severing diplomatic relations with the USSR, to break off relations with Cuba when the revolution triumphed. (Ramírez, 2004, 183; Rodríguez 2005; López-Meneses, 2017; Ojeda Awad, 2014)
The Armed Forces of Colombia were trained at the School of the Americas in the United States from the point of view of national security and the internal enemy, as a result of which internal social conflicts were considered exclusively as a result of the penetration of international communism. After the end of the Cold War and the National Front in Colombia, the anti-communist struggle in Colombia took on alarming dimensions. Within this framework, an extremely violent atmosphere was created in which paramilitaries, in collaboration with state forces and with US funding, carried out the extermination of over 6,000 communist militants and fighters of the Colombian Communist Party (PACOCOL), its coalition of social movements Unión Patriótica (UP) and the allied guerrillas and peasant groups.
Both internal and external actors have sought two types of international collaboration: firstly, political support and recognition from abroad, and secondly, military and logistical support in the war. On an international level, Colombia holds high geostrategic and economic relevance. It has coastlines on both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and shares a border with Venezuela, a country that has been a thorn in the side of the United States since the late 1990s. Colombia allows the operation of nine U.S. military bases on its territory and has been a constant ally of the U.S. and Europe with its right-wing, neoliberal government, as well as a representative of their economic interests in Latin America.
A change in the political and economic system in favor of the majority would have a direct impact on the neo-colonial logic of exploitation between the United States, Europe and Colombia. For this reason, counterinsurgency was vehemently supported by the US and its allies not only financially, but also with training, military support, logistics and strong media propaganda.
Germany also has economic interests in Colombia. Germany is Colombia's fifth-largest trading partner and the largest trading partner within the EU under a free trade agreement since 2013. Most recently, in spring 2022, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and then-Colombian President Iván Duque agreed to increase the import of Colombian coal to Germany. This is Germany's way of replacing a portion of its demand for Russian coal.
The largest coal exporters in Colombia have committed numerous human rights and environmental violations, which mainly affect the communities living in the mining areas. After the electoral victory of Gustavo Petro Colombia's first left-wing president in June 2022, he announced a move away from fossil fuel extraction in the country.
Venezuela and Ecuador are important allies in resolving the armed conflict in Colombia. All countries in the region have repeatedly expressed their support for the peace process with the FARC and the associated benefits for the stabilisation of the region. Petro's government officially resumed relations with Venezuela after he took office. In November 2022, the Colombian government resumed peace negotiations with the ELN guerrillas in Venezuela.
The Colombian conflict is not uniformly spread across the national territory and has developed specific dynamics depending on the region. Certain territories have historically been more affected by violence than others. In general, the conflict originated in rural, peripheral and border regions and has since been fought out much more strongly there than in the cities. 63.5% of the victims lived in rural and peripheral areas. There are several reasons for this.
On the one hand, the state is highly centralized and has only a limited presence in the rural zones of the country. Its presence in rural areas has historically been of a military nature. This facilitated the expansion and control of irregular armed forces, who in certain cases acted as substitutes for the state. Many young people join armed groups because of violence, lack of prospects and precariousness.
In the geography of the conflict, we can observe how the intensity of the conflict increases as we approach areas of the country that have more natural resources, as well as the regions with a strong concentration of soil for monocultures, extensive livestock farming and, since the 1980s, illegal crops such as marijuana, coca and poppies. There, tensions between large landowners, large national and international corporations, farmers, local communities, the state, paramilitary groups and guerrilla groups are the order of the day. They are fighting for territorial control and defending their strategic interests.
In fact, strategic corridors have emerged throughout the territory of Colombia that play an important role for armed actors, as they provide access to other countries, to areas of legal or illegal exploitation of natural resources, or to areas of illicit cultivation that are the basis of the war economy and the groups that gain control over them, provide significant benefits. This interactive map, based on information from the Colombian Truth Commission, lists and describes the current strategic corridors.
Peace in Colombia is nowhere to be seen after the peace agreement. In the first half of 2022 alone, over 70,000 people were displaced within Colombia. Since the conclusion of the peace negotiations in 2016 until the end of July 2022, 1,334 activists and 327 former FARC fighters have been murdered in Colombia. Particularly at risk are people who politically oppose mining, energy and agro-industrial projects, as well as municipal representatives who demand the enforcement of their social, cultural and economic rights in their communities.
A contribution by Tininiska Zanger and Adriana Yee Meyberg.
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